Wednesday, January 20, 2021
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Neighbor to Neighbor: The Band Played On

In an extraordinarily difficult year, we found kindness in every corner of Centre County. Town&Gown’s ‘Neighbor to Neighbor’ series explores some of those stories.

In a time of isolation and stress, finding a creative outlet has been a source of comfort for many. 

“When the shutdowns first started happening in the spring, it was amazing to see how people turned to the arts. From their homes, people were engaging in music, painting, and other creative pursuits, and arts organizations were offering access to resources such as concert livestreams and visual arts collections. I think it goes to show how fundamental the arts are to the human experience,” says Meg Smith, director of the Bellefonte Community Band.

This is something that Smith’s band members can understand. Made up of musicians from middle school to retirees throughout central Pennsylvania with varying levels of experience, the band offers members an opportunity to keep playing and performing throughout their lives.

During the 2020 shutdown, band members were able to keep practicing their art at home, but something was missing.

“In our band, and in other bands, too, I think we really like actually playing, but also the comradery that comes with everybody united around the same thing,” says Jenna Spinelle, band president and an alto saxophonist. “Particularly in recent month and years, it has been a nice respite from all the political craziness and all of that kind of stuff. It is a place where everybody can come and play and get to know each on those terms, as opposed to what we might think about what is happening in the news.”

So, band members worked to find a solution so they could continue to be together in a safe way. From April to June, they held some practices via Zoom, but it just wasn’t the same.

“Normally, we rehearse at Bellefonte Middle School. When the schools closed in March, we were not able to meet as a group. It was not until mid-June that we started discussing a possible return to rehearsals. We decided that we would rehearse outdoors with 6-foot spacing between the chairs,” says Smith. She adds, “Everyone in the band put in a lot of extra effort to make this work, despite the challenges we were facing, so it is really a testament to their dedication.”

The band finally got together again starting in the middle of July for outdoor rehearsals at Governors Park and later at New Hope Methodist Church. Masks and distance were required before people took to their chairs, but that didn’t stop people from being happy to see each other again.

“It was nice just to have something to do, and somewhere to go and see people,” says Spinelle. “It was just nice to catch up with everyone, see how everyone was passing the time, see who was practicing and who wasn’t. How everyone’s family was doing.”

Before rehearsals, members of the band planted orange construction flags in the ground where band members could set up their own chairs and playing stands, limiting contact with shared band equipment. Members realized quickly that playing 6 feet apart was going take some getting used to. Just playing outside requires an adjustment from playing inside, says Spinelle.

“It was tricky at first because the distance really creates a different sound for the musicians. But we got used to it and had a lot of fun getting together for our weekly rehearsals,” Smith says.

“It was definitely an adjustment … it affects the way the band can hear each other, but we got the hang of it, I think,” says Spinelle.

After the first rehearsal, band members where posting on Facebook “about how good it was to be making music again and getting out,” Spinelle adds. “Folks definitely appreciated the opportunity to have bands back in their lives.”

Back rehearsing together and with government restrictions loosened over the summer, the band was able to play three concerts over the past few months. The first was for the Summer Sounds concert series at Talleyrand Park, organized by the Bellefonte Historical and Cultural Association, and the second was part of the September Friday in the ’Fonte event. They closed the season with a family and friends concert. Spinelle says it was nice to perform in front of people who were thirsty for live music and something to do.

“At both concerts, we had bigger crowds than we normally would at those kind of concerts. We had beautiful weather and people just like having somewhere to be, something to go and do. People were good about wearing masks and sitting apart,” Spinelle says. “It is nice to see that some of these things can work; it is not like we have to completely forget about life as it was. If we can all commit to changing our behaviors a little bit, I think we can still figure out ways to have the things we all enjoy.”